Opinion: Protected cropping is the way forward

Future growth: Food Innovation Australia Limited’s Dr Mirjana Prica. Photo by Anthony Burns APP

Feeding the planet’s growing population — estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050 — is likely to be a global challenge of the 21st century.

In addition to this, climate change is set to impact traditional farming techniques along with urbanisation reducing the amount of available land suitable for agriculture.

With rising concerns around climate change impacting the future of the horticulture industry and more invasive crop pests finding their way to Australian shores, the ability to control growing environments provides farmers with an immense opportunity to grow high-value vine crops.

Against this backdrop, there is little doubt that protected cropping — the production of horticultural crops within, under or sheltered by structures that provide modified growing conditions — will have an increasingly important role to play in Australia’s agricultural mix.

Value-added opportunity for growth

If Australia is to bolster its food production in the face of climate change and deliver healthy food sustainably, it needs to produce more with less.

Protected cropping offers a way to do this by optimising the resources of water, energy and labour required to grow differentiated and high-value vine crops with high protein and other nutritional benefits.

To date, Australia’s uptake of protected cropping has been limited in comparison to other countries.

The protected cropping industry is expected to play a significant role in Australia’s economy by 2030.

Food Innovation Australia Limited’s Capturing the Prize report indicates that protected cropping’s potential could be worth $2 billion in 2030, if value-added opportunities are realised.

To fully take advantage of this opportunity, we need to foster a community that develops, adapts and encourages uptake of Australian and overseas innovations, along with a risk-taking, forward-looking and collaborative industry culture.

It will also require a skilled workforce for the future, who have the capacity and capability to develop and use ‘best in class’ protected cropping practices suited to Australian extreme climatic conditions.

Way to go: There is no other tool like protected cropping to de-risk horticultural production, says Food Innovation Australia Limited. Photo by Rodney Braithwaite

Reaping the rewards

There is no other tool like protected cropping to de-risk horticultural production.

Over the past decade, consumer expectations for year-round availability of fresh produce have increased and retailers are focusing more on producers who can meet these specifications.

Flavorite, one of Australia’s largest glasshouse producers of fresh fruit and vegetables, is a great example of a grower taking advantage of the benefits of protected cropping.

The company currently enjoys an 80kg yield per square metre versus the 3 to 5kg from a field crop, using just 18 litres of water compared with the 60 to 100 litres required for outdoor growing.

There is also a huge opportunity for Australia’s horticulture industry to meet growing domestic and export market demands through protected cropping adoption.

Australia’s close proximity to Asian markets, a favourable seasonal supply window and a growing consumer preference for clean, safe food have assisted Australian growers and exporters to establish a foothold in international markets in recent years.

As we consider the future of our environment, it is arguably a good time to consider growing value-added vine crops, drive improvements in production and capture more value that will protect Australia’s sovereign growing capability and strengthen our presence in these export markets for years to come.

Dr Mirjana Prica

Managing director, Food Innovation Australia Limited